Beware the wheel of doom

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Having spent too many hours this week staring at what my colleagues and I tend to call “the wheel of doom” on our Gazette computer screens my heart goes out to Edward Bryan.

First let me explain “the wheel of doom.” I don’t know the technical name for it but it pops up on our screens when whatever it is that powers our computers decides to either take a tea break or just simply break. We are left staring at it going round and round in a hypnotic way whilst it probably subliminally instructs us to “work longer, work harder, smile less.”

It freezes everything else we are doing and leaves us playing a cat and mouse game of “do we wait for you to stop spinning” or “do we apply the full breadth of our techno knowledge” and shut the system down, wait, switch it back on and discover everything we were doing had been lost. Then try not to cry, or swear. Reach for the blood pressure tablets and start all over again.

Now let me explain who Edward Bryan is. He works for the Japanese manufacturing company Brother and has earned himself a footnote in the cultural history books because any day now he will make the last even typewriter in the UK, just before the company donates it to the London Science Museum.

It will be a sad moment for a machine that changed history and gave us “qwerty” (look at the top row of letters on your laptop!). It simplified and speeded up the processes of journalism, publishing and business in much the same way that the computer has complicated it and given us all so much more to worry about.

The typewriter was a great liberator giving women a firm foothold in office life (there were 200 female clerks in Britain in the 1850s and some 166,000 by 1901). But its days were numbered once the word processor rose to ascendancy in the 1980s only to itself be overtaken by far more recent horrors – including the thing I’m racing against time to beat now before another visitation by “the wheel of doom” (save and store, save and store you fool).

The typewriter was a great leveller. When I first walked into The Gazette there was a pecking order of the rattle and clang, rat-a-tat machines. The newer you were the older the machine you were handed. It inspired me to (a) buy a portable one and (b) collect old ones. I’ve still got about half a dozen scattered around the house, pretty useless but very beautiful.

There were also copy typists whose fingers flew over the keyboards rarely making an error. And there were youngsters like myself (yes, I was once a youngster) who tippy tapped with two fingers and had to very careful not to hit the wrong keys because in those days everything was done in triplicate on small sheets of copy paper with carbons between then (it was one for us, one for news desk and one for the sub-editors).

I don’t want get too nostalgic about it but the soft tap of the modern keyboard completely lacks the hard sound of an office full of stories literally being rattled out. Why hasn’t anyone applied an electric “ping” onto computers to echo that joyful sound which used to ring out when we reached the end of each line?